Saturday, 2 June 2012

Differences remain exaggerated

I was frustrated to see Boyd and Richerson trotting out their list of the "main differences between genes and culture" in their paper to celebrate Darwin, 150 years on. Here, I respond to their points:

  • First, an individual is not restricted to sampling just their two biological parents to acquire a cultural trait. [...]

    • Organic traits can be acquired from individuals besides direct parents too - for example at 'pox parties'.

  • Second, we are not limited to imitating people of our parental generation; peers, grandparents, and even ancient prophets can influence cultural evolution. [...]

    • Organic traits can be acquired from generations other than the parental one too. For example, itching, coughing and sneezing behaviours can be acquired from offspring, peers and grandparents.

  • Third, individuals acquire and discard items of culture throughout life. One is stuck with one’s genes, though expression of genes can be modified throughout life. [...]

    • Actually, organic symbionts can be acquired and discarded throughout life in a similar manner to cultural symbionts.

  • Fourth, variations acquired during an individual’s lifetime are readily passed on to others by coupling the common animal ability to learn to imitation. [...]

    • Variations acquired during an individual’s lifetime are passed on in organic evolution as well - for example, when a pathogen "tunes in" to its host's genotype and then spreads to its relatives.

Cultural evolution and organic evolution are not exactly the same, but I've been over these particular misconceptions about cultural evolution before.

Having said that, this paper was probably written some time back in 2009.

Boyd and Richerson also nod towards cultural kin selection in the paper. Alas, their comment seems rather disparaging:

Many evolutionary social scientists have been keen to apply the main theoretical and empirical results of evolutionary biology, such as Hamilton’s inclusive fitness rule, to human behavior. Contrariwise, using the formal, mathematical, experimental, and observational methods of Darwinian biology to study cultural evolution has turned out to be an effective way to understand the distinctive processes of cultural evolution and the coevolution of genes and culture.

Applying kin selection theory to memes is pretty central to understanding the behavior of modern humans. It seems extremely incorrect to suggest that these results from evolutionary biology do not apply - or are unproductive - in the case of human cultural evolution.

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